Malaysia: Face to face with orangutans

Borneo's population of wild apes is in peril.
This is an archived article that was published on in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An excited silence permeates the humid air.

After walking a half-kilometer through dense tropical rain forest, the crowd of about 50 waits impatiently.

A loud crash grabs everyone's attention. Through the dense green leaves, we see a flash of orange.

Suddenly, the jungle is filled with a cacophony of rustling leaves and sharp cracks as unwilling trees bend against the weight of full-grown orangutans.

Cameras fly to people's faces as they snap photos of the gentle, quiet creatures who descend from the treetops to some of the fruit left by workers at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Borneo. It's one of the last regions on Earth with wild orangutans, and the population is declining rapidly as deforestation destroys their habitat.

It's difficult to imagine harming these magnificent apes surrounding us as we stand on a wooden observation deck. Being so close to a full-grown orangutan -- sitting on the railing not a foot from our group -- couldn't happen in a place like the states where someone sues after spilling hot coffee on themselves. The park rangers warned us not to touch them -- previous visitors have landed in the hospital by doing so. But that was the only warning we got.

And it's hard not to reach out and touch the female staring at us so intently.

I'm on another trip to a seemingly random country with my adventurous aunt and uncle, Karen Lupo and Dave Schmitt, who have become my favorite travel partners. If you saw the list of countries we've bounced around to, you might think we simply spun a globe and chose a random location. In reality, we searched for places where our weak dollar would have some leverage and unique experiences awaited.

This was the salient moment when I realized we had chosen well.

We spent three weeks touring the country, going from the welcoming, ultramodern metropolis of Kuala Lumpur to the caves of Mulu National Park. I didn't set foot in any of the breathtaking caves because I was so sick I begged for death. I recovered just in time for the wildlife portion of the trip.

And there's only one way to describe how I felt during the hour I watched those animals with their deeply intelligent eyes eat, play and bond: I felt closer to God.

The rangers at the center work to reacclimate the apes to the wild, and those who "graduate" go back to the jungle. But many apes will stay at the center because they never will be self-sufficient.

That mix of joy and despair seemed to tinge every experience we had in Malaysia. We saw amazing animals, but they may not be around for my children or grandchildren to see.

We spent a day hiking through Bako National Park. It was true jungle hiking, using roots and branches as toe and hand holds as we scrambled through dense foliage. But our sweat-soaked T-shirts seemed worth the effort when we stood only inches away from another great species: proboscis monkeys, again unique to Borneo. My uncle Dave described them as Jimmy Durante monkeys, with their oddly long, floppy noses. And all three of us couldn't stop giggling over what the natives call "chili peppers" -- the males' bright red, always-erect penises.

The park and its animals, accessible only by boats that depart every few minutes, draw tourists from throughout the world.

"I wanted to see the wildlife and do some jungle trekking," said Marion Deliere, of Lyon, France. "It was very easy to get here, and everyone said it was beautiful here -- they were right."

On our third day of the wildlife tour, we decided to check out the Irrawaddy Dolphins that live in the brackish water between the South China Sea and the fresh, inland water.

Farrah "Ruby" Marcel, our guide for the tour, was as friendly as we had come to expect from the people of Malaysia.

She filled us in on the plight of yet another endangered animal found only in this area.

"The Irrawaddy Dolphin's population has decreased significantly over the years as they have been killed accidentally by fishermen," she said, adding that only about 100 of the dolphins remain. "We are working hard to raise awareness of the dolphins and protect them."

The World Wildlife Fund has begun looking into tracking the populations that live in the mangrove areas of Borneo.

But thoughts of the threat quickly dissipated as we came upon a large pod of dolphins. Just a few feet from our low boat, the dolphins would lift their bulbous, round heads, grab a breath of air and go back under. It was a completely enchanting experience as the fresh sea air whipped through our hair and blew away the oppressive humidity.

After nearly two hours of dolphin watching, we motored along the mangrove forest. The trees grow up out of the semisalty water, and during low tide, the ground is an unforgiving, muddy pit. As we floated by, the boat driver suddenly shouted and killed the engine. A nearly eight-foot crocodile was sunning itself among the trees. We edged up to it and starting taking pictures.

In a smattering of seconds, it ran to the edge of the small cliff and dove off the embankment.

It missed diving into the bow of our boat by inches.

I don't know if I've ever been so startled in my entire life -- I had no idea a creature so large could move so quickly.

After the adrenaline rush passed, nervous giggles filled our boat.

No, it wasn't the same excitement I felt watching orangutans or monkeys or dolphins. But it was an experience I wouldn't get back home.

We left Malaysia feeling we had accomplished our goal of having deeply unique experiences. I don't know where my next adventure will take me, but I'm excited to spin the globe again.

Wildlife and jungle trekking in Malaysia

Getting there » A number of U.S. carriers, many partnering with Asian airline companies, fly to Malaysia. Sites such as and show rates, which range from $1,100 to $4,500 depending on the airline.

Places to eat » Highlights in Kuching include the Life Cafe (Phone: 082-411754, 108 Ewe Hai Street), a Chinese tea shop, offers delectable steamed pork dumplings. The Junk Restaurant (Phone: 6082-259450; 80 Wayang Street) offers a diverse menu of French, Italian and Western cuisine.

Places to sleep » Harbour View Hotel (Phone: 60-082-274666, Lorong Temple Street) offers decent rooms with all the amenities, including a buffet breakfast, for an economical price. For a jungle-oriented stay, try the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort (Phone: 60-83584388 Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman). It's a long trek into town, but gives a more tribal flavor to your visit.